I came, I saw, I banya-ed.

It’s so hard to believe I’m down to less than two weeks left in St. Petersburg. (Twelve days, to be exact.)  I must admit, it’s a strange feeling knowing that I will be leaving this beautiful city so soon. I’ve grown used to my daily routine – buying my vanilla and chocolate флейнта at the Буше bread truck, the morning metro commute, walking the halls of the Smolny convent for class, heading to Счастье cafe to do some homework with Ryan, exploring St.P on the weekend – it is going to be strange returning to the States where things are so different. A girl in my program said that one of the strangest experiences upon her return to the U.S. after being abroad was the ability to read and understand everything without having to translate it in your head. While I’m able to read Cyrillic quite easily, just being able to look at a street sign and understand it will come as naturally as breathing back home in America. I’m certain there are a few other things I will have to readjust to after living in the Motherland for four months. Because of this, I’ve decided to compile a list – some borrowed from other websites or tumblrs – of daily sights and activities that I’ve grown accustomed to here that might not be the same back in the U.S.

20 Signs You’ve Been Living in St. Petersburg 

  1. You catch yourself whistling indoors and feel guilty.
  2. You never smile in public when you’re alone.
  3. Cigarette smoke becomes ‘tolerable’.
  4. You know seven people whose favorite novel is The Master and Margarita.
  5.  You develop a liking for beets.
  6. You give a 10% tip only if the waiter has been really exceptional.
  7. Seeing a car mount the curb and cruise by is no big deal.
  8. You know the safest places to get good shaverma.
  9. When these need no explanation:
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  10. When you carry sunglasses, mittens, and an umbrella on you at all times.
  11. You’re no longer surprised when you professor answers his/her cell phone in class.
  12. You wear a wool hat in the sauna.
  13. “Boyarskii shots” and “hatchapouri” become integral parts of your vocabulary.
  14. You immediately recognize these strange foods….and know to avoid them, if possible. (Not a fan of the gelatin meat in particular…)
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  15. You carry toilet paper or tissue paper on you at all times.
  16. You have VKontakte. Because it is better than Facebook in all ways.
  17. You now understand Russian slang.
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  18. Your feet no longer notice that you’ve spent 10-12 hours in heels on cobblestones.
  19. Successfully took a gypsy cab and was not ripped off.
  20. When Улыбка Радуги gives you kopeks.
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I have been putting my spare time to good use, however! This past week I visited more museums and palaces than I think I did the entire first month I was here. First, I had the opportunity to travel and hour south of St. Petersburg to the suburb of Pushkin to see the famous Catherine’s Palace. Not even the clouds and the footpaths that were covered with six inches of ice could diminish the glory of the Great Palace of Царское Село.

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The famous “Amber Room” of Catherine’s Palace.DSC_5004 DSC_5025

This weekend I also had the chance to visit Menshikov’s Palace, which was once the home of the Russian statesman Alexander Menshikov. Despite the allegations of fraud against him, which were brushed under the rug thanks to his close friendship with Peter the Great, Menshikov’s story is that of a peasant who rose to one of the highest positions of power during that time period. This was due to Peter the Great’s decision to have nobility based on merit rather than birthright. While his palace was certainly large and exquisite, it was no where near the extravagance of Peterhof or Yusupov. It was a rather refreshing change to see a more modest palace!

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“modest”

The Kunstkamera Museum (Aka: Peter the Great’s Anthropology and Ethnography Museum) and the Zoological Museum were fascinating! The Zoological Museum housed an actual mummified wooly mammoth calf that had been found in the Yamal region of Siberia, as well as models of almost every living creature that has been discovered so far on this planet. It was massive. 

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Two Minnesotans in their natural habitat. 

The Kunstkamera museum was interesting and…disturbing. Peter the Great was incredibly interested in studying anatomy, something that wasn’t quite popular during that time. The walls of the Kunstkamera were lined with jars of mutated and deformed fetuses that Peter the Great had dissected and observed 300 years ago. After a couple of minutes, I felt a little sick to my stomach…

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And, finally, the last museum I had a chance to visit was the massive Russian State Museum. It was a founded in 1895 by Nicholas II and is the largest depository of Russian fine art in St. Petersburg. I thought it was incredibly interesting to see the progression of art in Russia, starting with icon paintings and working our way up to more contemporary art. I was actually so enthralled with the different paintings that I forgot to take pictures! Here are a few of the ones I snapped on my phone:

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This weekend was also the perfect time to explore the city! It snowed a bit, but the nights were rather clear and I was able to snag a few photos along the Neva river and the Moika embankment.

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Moika Embankmentnighttime

Canal Griboedova
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The Hermitage lit up at night. 

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Kunstkamera Museum

It also gave me the perfect opportunity to go and explore inside Спас на крови or “Church on Spilled Blood”, as it is more popularly known. I felt that it would be a huge disappointment to leave Petersburg without having been inside the most well known church! Let me say, it was beautiful. I’ve been in MANY churches while in Russia, but Спас на крови was one of my favorites. The colors were so vibrant, and the holy gates were extravagant but not gaudy.  Take a look for yourself below!

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As I mentioned before, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays and we were able to celebrate it in style here in Russia. By the end of the night I was stuffed full of turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and a sweet potato souffle! While I certainly missed spending time with my family, this was the next best thing. I’m so thankful that I had such wonderful friends to share a traditional American holiday meal with while abroad. It felt as if we had carved out our own little section of America there at Smolny.

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Alright, you guys have waited long enough if you’ve read all the way to here. I’m sure you’re interested in hearing about the most Russian thing I did this past weekend: the Banya. I’ll be honest – I don’t know if I will be able to properly put into words how strange and awesome the Russian banya is, but I will do my absolute best. First, let me start off by saying that I went with my best girl friend on the program, Ryan, and our wonderful Russian friend, Anya. I felt a little better knowing that there would be no problem with the language barrier. It’s hard enough trying to properly formulate a sentence in Russian. Now add being naked.

And I don’t mean kinda naked. I mean as naked as the day you were born. Yeah, so go with people you’re comfortable with.

Because nothing says friendship quite like strippin’ down and beating each other with branches…

As an American, the blatant nakedness was kind of a shock. Sure we were separated from the males, but most Americans are not that open or comfortable with such exposure, and usually attempt a little decency by wrapping themselves in a towel at all times while walking around. Even at the YMCA everybody would turn toward a wall and keep their eyes down while changing. Well, in Russia, you need to get over that awkwardness ASAP because it only gets stranger/more awesome from there.

So after stripping down and wrapping myself in a gown I swear to God, it was a bedsheet…. we then proceeded to the wet sauna, which was about 130-140 degrees, and the air is so thick with moisture that we were quickly  dripping with sweat and condensation. After about 20 minutes, we left that and immediately jumped into the cold pool, which was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. It is the most shocking sensation to go from such intense heat to such a cold temperature! My muscles felt all loose and relaxed after the first dip, so we went and laid down alongside of the pool for a couple of minutes before prepping ourselves for the most exciting part of the banya: the birch branches.

Now, I had thought the wet sauna was hot, but I had had no idea what was coming. The most famous part of the banya looks like a little wooden cabin, has a humidity of 60-70%, and temperatures that exceed over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. No, you read that right.

Typical_Russian_Banya

If Hell had a travel brochure.

Before we could enter the banya, though, we had to put on these funny wool hats to protect our hair from the intense heat. Then, we grabbed our birch branches and climbed up onto the wooden racks. I felt like a slab of meat put over a grill, it was so warm, and I thought my eyes were melting out of their sockets.

With all this going on, it was pretty easy to forget you were buck naked in a room full of old women and your two friends.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the birch branches, but I have to say that it was rather enjoyable. It was a strange stinging sensations, but it wasn’t painful. Let me say that Anya went to town on my back. The birch branches aren’t used to gently brush your friend’s back, no. These leafy bundles, called venik, are used for the purpose of trying to improve blood circulation, intensifying capillary activities, and improving metabolism. Venik leaves release phytoncides – biologically active substance that kills or depresses the growth and development of pathogens – and the essential oils released prevent aging.

So you beat the living hell out of each other. 

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After this, we quickly ran back to the cool pool to shock our bodies one more time. It was as if the outside of our bodies had quickly cooled but the insides remained warm. We did this three more times before finally calling it quits. It was hard to believe that we had spent four hours at the banya. I could have spent the whole day there!

My final review? The banya is wonderful. If you ever visit Russia, make sure you go. Leave your discomfort at the door or else you will miss out on an amazing Russian experience. Plus, my skin felt silky smooth and rejuvenated once I left.

If you haven’t gotten tired of reading this post yet, I will leave you with a few other random thoughts and observations before I finish!

* (Another girl on the program did something similar to this, so I decided to give it a go!) Here’s a little attempt at math for you: My daily commute from my apartment to school and back is about 3 hours. This includes the walk to my bus stop, the bus ride I take to the metro, the 5 minute ride purely on the escalator to go more than 200 ft underground, the metro ride itself, back up the escalator, and then either walking to a shuttle bus and riding that to school or taking the trolley and walking from the bus stop. I make this trek four times a week, but we will round it up to five since I’ll include time spent traveling on weekends (although, I probably spend even more time on the weekend, but for simplicity’s sake we will keep it to five). By the end of this trip I will have been in Russia 105 days. Three hours = 180 minutes x 5 days a week x 15 weeks that I am here in Petersburg. Guess what this equals? 13,500 minutes. Guess what that is in days?

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By the time I leave Petersburg I will have spent about 10 days just riding the transportation around the city. It’s no wonder that Russians travel with books in their hands! You can get a lot of reading and work done during that much time!

* Pandora music channel doesn’t exist here. Neither does Netflix. I’m telling you: Get a VKontakte. It will save your life over here.

* A kopek is the worst thing to see in your wallet because it is equal to .03 of a US penny. I didn’t think something so useless could exist, but it does…

* To explain from my list above, shaverma is the shadiest but most delicious food you can find when you’re drunk for cheap in Russia. The problem is that some places aren’t the safest. NEVER eat street food shaverma from the trucks or the little street stands because you’re probably not eating chicken like they’re advertising, and I can almost guarantee that they follow zero health code regulations. ALWAYS buy it from an actual shaverma restaurant. Specifically, the one on the corner of Dumskaya and Lomonosov. It’s magical.

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I kid you not. This is safer than street food.

* English gets harder the longer that I am here. I’m either trying to speak more Russian, or I am around Russians who are not always quite fluent in English. I find myself forgetting how to spell certain things that are not in cyrillic, or floundering to find the correct word for translation. Please forgive any grammatical mistakes I make while writing these. (It’s 1:30am here.) Instead of improving at a second language, I now just feel like I suck at two. Ужасно!

* There is nothing worse than the metro during rush hour.
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* I’ve lost a fair amount of weight in Russia. Yay for defying statistics!

* While I know I’ve mentioned the chivalrous, sometimes verging on misogynistic, men in Russia, I feel I’ve failed to mention the creepy/aggressive ones that will sometimes harass poor young girls.

Them:

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Me:

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So, here is a rather uncomfortable but necessary piece of advice. As creepy as they are, and believe me I know, I cannot stress this enough: Do not engage with them. If a Russian man is harassing you on the street, ignore him.  Put on your coldest, haughtiest Russia face and keep walking.  Do not awknowledge, not even to snear disdainfully at him.  These men are five year olds.  Ignore them and they’ll move on. If you do not, they might follow you home. As much as you might want to, do not smack, flip off, or insult them.  The only thing that might do is make matters escalate, quickly and aggressively. I’m thankful that the one time I couldn’t hold my tongue nothing happened, but it is not a situation you should go on the offensive. Russians don’t fight the same way we do in America. It will hurt, and you will lose.

I hate to leave it on that note, so here is a picture of Jake, myself, and a very kind Russian police officer who rode the marshrutka (a mini shuttle bus) and metro back home with us from Pushkin.

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Anyway, I have to go MC a talent show at a nightclub in Russia now. Leave me a comment to let me know your thoughts!

Люблю,
Кайла

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12 thoughts on “I came, I saw, I banya-ed.

  1. SOOOOO many thoughts…not enough words to say to all of those experiences! The pictures are gorgeous Kayla. I am continually amazed at the wealth of the time, the preservation of the churches and palaces and the quantity of it. And there is no way I want to Banya. ; ) Chat soon!

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I’m sure you have a similar top 20 from moscow! I visited Moscow for a couple of days, and it was a refreshing break from Petersburg. How was living there for an entire year?

      • That’s pretty funny cause I sort of felt the same about St Petersbug. It is easily the most beautiful city I have ever been too. I actually went back to spent New Years there this year, incredible times!

        Moscow was nearly the death of me but also the greatest year of my life! I wrote about on the site a few friends and I run 🙂

        http://seesomething.com.au/category/russia/

  2. Great blog honey!! I was hoping to hear about your recent activities, as I know they were ripe for your witty analysis. I am amazed by your attention to detail and recall.., and that’s even after seeing it firsthand for many many years! Lori and I just grin and shake our heads re the Banya. Great read though! Stay safe Kayla. We love you!!!!!! Dad and Lori.

  3. Your blog posts have been inspiring. I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to go to Russia so living through your pictures and stories has been appreciated! Safe travels back home!

    • Thank you so much!! I’m glad that everyone seems to be enjoying reading them! I truly hope you get to visit here someday, but I’d recommend waiting until summertime. 🙂 This ice and snow is not the most fun.I have fallen down at least four times now.

  4. Kayla where does the time go. I can’t believe you will be home soon. How will I get my travel/living through your blog fix… You really are a great funny writer. Enjoy your last week+ and I look forward to catching up with you soon. Love you Aunt Krissy…and be safe. 🙂

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